In bid to clean Russian River, water regulators adopt strict plan for Sonoma County septic systems

The "Follow This Story" feature will notify you when any articles related to this story are posted.

When you follow a story, the next time a related article is published — it could be days, weeks or months — you'll receive an email informing you of the update.

If you no longer want to follow a story, click the "Unfollow" link on that story. There's also an "Unfollow" link in every email notification we send you.

This tool is available only to subscribers; please make sure you're logged in if you want to follow a story.

Please note: This feature is available only to subscribers; make sure you're logged in if you want to follow a story.

Subscribe

New rules for landowners in Russian River watershed

What: New rules for mandatory inspections and repair/replacement of septic systems and cesspools

Who: Up to 10,000 parcels in Sonoma County, including properties within 600 feet of a mapped stream or within 200 feet of seasonal stream. The affected area stretches from Cloverdale to Cotati, and from Santa Rosa to Jenner.

When: Beginning next year, landowners will need to make a report of what kind of wastewater collection and treatment system they use. Later, mandatory inspections will kick in on a rotating 5-year basis.

Homeowners will have 15 years after the effective date of the new rules to make necessary repairs and replacements, or join a collective solution. No cesspools will be allowed.

To find out if your property is in the regulation area:

To find out if your property is in the regulation area:

Search by address

Search by parcel, whole watershed map

Click here for more information.

North Coast water quality regulators have signed off on a sweeping new plan that aims to curb the threat of human waste entering the Russian River by phasing out failing and substandard septic systems, viewed for decades as a prime source of pollution in the sprawling watershed.

Years in the making, the regulations affect a vast swath of Sonoma County — properties without sewer service from Cloverdale to Cotati and from Santa Rosa to Jenner. For the first time, affected landowners will be subject to compulsory inspections and mandatory repair or replacement of septic systems found to be faulty or outdated, at an estimated cost of up to $114 million, according to county officials.

The new rules take effect next year and will apply to an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 parcels without sewer service. Once the rules kick in, landowners will have 15 years to comply.

The highest concentration of affected property owners exist in the river’s lower reaches, where contamination from fecal bacteria has long been an open issue, but where officials worry that poorer communities will face the heaviest burden complying with the measures. Upgrades to an individual septic system can cost tens of thousands of dollars, and no pot of money currently exists to help defray landowner costs.

Local representatives, while not standing in the way of the measures, said outside financial support for the overhaul will be needed. North Coast water quality officials pledged to work with Sonoma County to pursue state, federal and private funding to bolster the cleanup effort.

“I’m very concerned that if the enforcement comes before the funding, people are going to be left terrified and without any way to come into compliance,” Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who represents the west county, told the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board during its meeting Wednesday.

The board’s previous attempts to enact regulations targeting failing waste collection systems along the river and its tributaries have broken down largely under withering public opposition and objections that the enhanced requirements were applied too broadly.

But now, in the third round of rulemaking, with a plan rewritten and refined over the past five years, authorities have amassed records and testing showing signs of human fecal contamination in streams near where the new measures would take effect. The targeted areas span large areas of the watershed outside of local cities; inside those boundaries, most properties are connected to sewer service.

The sources of pollution, officials say, could be any number of things — from homeless encampments to heavy beach use, stormwater run-off to sewage holding ponds. Winter season spikes suggest rainstorms and runoff play an important role.

But in certain areas of the watershed, particularly along the lower Russian River in what were once largely summer communities, high concentrations of cesspools and outdated septic tanks still exist. Many were built where there is insufficient soil depth above groundwater to completely filter out pathogens or they were installed on lots that are too small or steep, water regulators say.

Water samples collected where development is dense suggest some of the waste treatment systems contribute to contamination, officials said. It’s these areas where water quality regulators hope to see any necessary corrective action take place.

New rules for landowners in Russian River watershed

What: New rules for mandatory inspections and repair/replacement of septic systems and cesspools

Who: Up to 10,000 parcels in Sonoma County, including properties within 600 feet of a mapped stream or within 200 feet of seasonal stream. The affected area stretches from Cloverdale to Cotati, and from Santa Rosa to Jenner.

When: Beginning next year, landowners will need to make a report of what kind of wastewater collection and treatment system they use. Later, mandatory inspections will kick in on a rotating 5-year basis.

Homeowners will have 15 years after the effective date of the new rules to make necessary repairs and replacements, or join a collective solution. No cesspools will be allowed.

To find out if your property is in the regulation area:

To find out if your property is in the regulation area:

Search by address

Search by parcel, whole watershed map

Click here for more information.

“We have a built environment that we would probably never do today in the density that’s here,” said David Noren, a Sebastopol resident and a longtime member of the North Coast water board, which is based in Santa Rosa. “And so we’re looking at trying to retrofit, through a program of implementation here, to retrofit and make better a wastewater collection and treatment system, whether it be collectively or individually. And that’s a tall order, no doubt about it.”

With its headwaters in Mendocino County, the Russian River supplies drinking water to over 600,000 people, while bolstering irrigation supplies for farms, sustaining wildlife, and serving as a popular destination for generations of visitors, from fishermen to paddlers and sunbathers.

But the water body has suffered under the pressures of urban and rural development, dam building and the heavier-handed legacies of logging, mining and farming that take a toll to this day.

It remains impaired in the eyes of water quality regulators because of problems not only with bacterial contamination, but also excessive sediment loads and high water temperatures. The new regulations were needed, officials said, to address the bacteria issue and comply with state and federal laws governing water standards for recreational use.

The Sonoma County Health Department monitors the 10 most popular public river beaches to ensure fecal bacteria levels remain below acceptable thresholds, so the river remains safe for swimming and other recreation, officials said.

Hopkins made that point to applause on Wednesday.

“I would take my 6-month old son to vacation and have fun and swim in the Russian River,” she said. “Please know that it’s open for business.”

But the regional board has an obligation to ensure the watershed can consistently meet water quality objectives and does not decline. It has sought to address bacterial sources through a variety of means, including a follow-up discussion on Thursday focused on dairies, but the issue of septic systems has consistently garnered the greatest public interest.

“I’m here out of grave concern for my neighbors in Hacienda, and all up and down the Russian River,” said Phil Grosse, who emerged Wednesday from a crowd of local residents opposed to the new regulations

Grosse read words and phrases culled from written comments submitted by the public: “Overly expansive, unreasonable, inequitable, unsupported, overkill, unaffordable, unconscionable, impossible and potentially catastrophic.”

“This will be a disaster for the lower Russian River,” he said. “People will lose their homes.”

The final plan targets parcels that are within at least 600 feet of certain areas of the Russian River and specific tributaries. Less extensive zones were drawn around seasonal streams.

Many of the program details are not yet worked out, though water board staff members promised robust public outreach in the months and years ahead.

The first step will be for property owners notified by the water board to report back with whatever they know about their waste treatment system: what it includes, how it works, when it was installed, for example.

The water board staff expects this assessment to take about five years and provide information that will help guide how they proceed with the rest of the program.

After that, affected property owners will need to start having their waste systems inspected every five years and make appropriate repairs or upgrades where required, including replacing cesspools, which will no longer be allowed in the county, and, in many cases, adding enhanced treatment components, like ultraviolet radiation, to ensure all waste is fully treated.

The regional board also anticipates that some neighborhoods will come together to work on a collective treatment approach, particularly where the landscape is not hospitable to a septic system.

Show Comment

Our Network

Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Emerald Report
Spirited Magazine